With a prize at Cannes, favourable reviews and complimentary buzzwords (such as 'delightful' and 'impeccable') all in the mix, you could be forgiven for believing that European cinema had chanced upon the next 'Cinema Paradiso' or 'Amelie' and unearthed the next great take on heartwarming universality. Despite this, my suspicion is that the average cinema goer will ultimately come away from viewing 'The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki' slightly underwhelmed.
It would probably help to accurately define what it is, but here the film isn't shy of a bit of bobbing and weaving. Is it a boxing movie, is it a love story, is it a lovingly recreated slice of history, is it a tale of 'the little man facing mighty odds', is it a wry look at sporting optimism tainted by commercialism and self-interest? In truth, the movie invites each of these elements into the ring, feints and jabs with them, but without ever really hitting any of these targets square on.
The bulk of the story is devoted to Olli's pre-fight schedule, in the days immediately preceding the big match. So there's plenty of sparring, running and sweating on view, but this is also interlaced with the multiple promotional and commercial events Olli must attend in order to satisfy the sponsors and financiers of the bout. Rather than developing Olli's character (which remains fairly fixed as an affable, modest everyman) this routine is most successful at conveying how an event, which is billed as one man's dream, can incrementally drift away and become something he almost no longer recognises as his own. A man who merely wishes to test his talent, suddenly finds himself as a performer in a grand spectacle, carrying the weight of a nation's expectation on his shoulders. It's not 'one giant leap' to imagine a biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong treading a similar path.
If I haven't mentioned the love story until this juncture, it's probably because, despite it producing some of the film's best moments, its presence feels a little token. Narratively, it teases us with the possibility that Raija is a distraction for Olli, dislodging his focus from 'his dream' or instead that she is actually the only genuine thing he has left to hold on to; especially given the fickle nature of the 'media circus' surrounding him. Whether it's preparing for sleep in a children's bunk bed, a stolen kiss at a local wedding reception or stealing an evening for themselves away from the pre-fight hoopla, Raija's wide-eyed openness and Olli's shuffling chivalry certainly imbue the film with some much needed emotional texture, but it's not enough. Given that we've had no access to them before the whole machinery of the 'big event' is in motion, for the most part, it's difficult to see them as much more than chess pieces in a game not of their own making.
The performances of the two leads and that of Eero Milonoff, as Olli's scheming promoter, all do the film credit, and as an impressively rendered piece of history, it's easy to see the film resonating with a domestic audience. But the rest of the art-house crowd may find the current 7.8 average IMDb rating a little generous; 6.8 is probably closer to the mark. (insert your own joke about the film not being a 'knockout' here)